Thursday, September 25, 2014

Take a Drive & Enjoy New Mexico's Fall Colors

US 64 between Tierra Amarilla and Tres Piedras New Mexico. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
There’s no better time than autumn to see some of the best scenery in northern New Mexico and with the changing of the leaves there’s no better excuse for a road trip.

Some prefer to leave the driving to others like those who ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad out of either Antonito Co. or Chama NM to see the fall colors. Check out their website at for more details.

Passengers aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad abandon their seats for the open car shown here about six miles out of Chama and still 1,700 feet below 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass nine miles ahead. Photo by Bill Diven. 
But one of the easiest and best day drives up north to see those colors is the 50-mile jaunt from Tierra Amarilla (TA) over the mountains and through the Carson National Forest to Tres Piedras (TP).

Those traveling from Santa Fe will see over 90 miles of spectacular scenery just getting to the outskirts of the historic village of TA and the turnoff to TP on US 64.

All aspen are not equal as different colors reveal themselves in separate stands as the green of chlorophyll retreats until next spring. Photo by Bill Diven.
Then after crossing the mountains it’s a mere 80 miles back from Tres Piedras passing through even more rural, sparsely settled and very scenic countryside.

Travelers from Santa Fe heading north on US 84/285 can choose either route just north of Espanola at the turnoff to Ojo Caliente to make the roundtrip drive.

The drive on US 64 between TA and TP during the fall is a pleasant and must do New Mexico experience. Photo courtesy of Karl Moffatt.
 Those staying on US 84 will pass through the tiny village of Abiquiu where the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe once lived and worked.

This is a great place to stop for gas, coffee and breakfast burritos at Bode’s general store.

Continuing on northward along the Chama River motorists will climb atop a mesa where those who stop will be rewarded with great views of the river below, especially if the Cottonwood trees are turning.

Continuing on this drive travelers will find themselves passing through a canyon fringed by towering red rock cliffs before coming upon the entrances to Ghost Ranch, the Piedra Lumber Visitor Center and Echo Amphitheatre.

Echo Amphitheater off US 84 in northern New Mexico. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
All three spots are worthy of stopping for and can produce lasting memories especially for those who are armed with cameras.

This may be one of New Mexico’s finest drives for those seeking magnificent, eye popping views of northern New Mexico’s high desert scenery.

The drive then takes visitors further north for many miles through rugged countryside before coming to the US 64 turnoff just shy of Rio Arriba’s county seat at Tierra Amarilla.

The highway over the mountains toTres Piedras first passes through a wide valley marked by farms and ranches before climbing towards the looming Brazos Cliffs. 

US 64 near Tierra Amarilla New Mexico. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
 Several pull offs on this side of the mountains provide spectacular views of the countryside including bright yellow aspen groves and brilliant red oak trees during the fall.

Upon topping out motorists will find two pull offs where they can view the imposing Brazos Cliffs and see even more striking views of the valley below.

The Brazos Cliffs as seen from US 64 rest area between Tierra Amarilla and Tres Piedras New Mexico. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
Upon continuing down the road motorists will find several opportunities to further explore the woods and fields of this vast tract of public land by way of forest roads.

Those who like to fish will come across beautiful Hopewell Lake just off the highway where brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout can be caught. 

Hopewell Lake off US 64 between Tierra Amarilla and Tres Piedras in northern New Mexico. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
There’s also nice little campground here and it’s a great place for a picnic or hike.

More adventuresome types armed with a keen sense of direction or a Carson National Forest map could follow the forest road past the campground and end up hours later coming out by the hot springs at Ojo Caliente.

Those who stay on the highway instead will end up at the roadside settlement of Tres Piedras on US 285.

Travelers who stop here can see from the road the preserved US Forest Service home that Aldo Leopold built while serving as District Ranger there in 1911.

Aldo Leopold's cabin at Tres Piedras NM.
Leopold is considered by many to be the father of the nation’s wilderness conservation movement and New Mexico lays claim to being home to the nation’s very first designated wilderness area.

Tres Piedras sits at a crossroads where until just a few years ago a busy gas station, convenience store and diner could be found. Now they stand unused and closed like so many other roadside businesses in New Mexico these days. 

The diner in Tres Piedras where many a meal has been had stands eerily silent now. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
But just within spitting distance sits a new business that’s recently opened to fill the void. The Chili Line Depot brews up some good coffee and serves great home cooking for those travelling through this remote area along the rim of the Rio Grande.

The Chili Line Depot now provides much needed services to travelers on US 285 at Tres Piedras NM.
Heading back to Santa Fe on US 285 is a breeze along the newly improved highway that rolls south for mile after mile through lonely, desolate rangeland until reaching Ojo Caliente.

US 285 between Tres Piedras and Ojo Caliente. Photo by Karl Moffatt.
A recent drive along this route on the weekend of Sept. 20-21st revealed trees just about ready to explode with color up in the high country.

Another great fall scenic drive in northern New Mexico includes the High Road to Taos above Espanola and back along the Rio Grande.

From Santa Fe take US 84/285 north to the Nambe Pueblo turn off on NM 503 and follow over to the Chimayo turnoff.  Upon reaching NM 76 head up the mountain to Truchas and on over to Penasco and then over to Ranchos de Taos for the return trip along the river.

Those with less time on their hands can always make a run up into the mountains just above Santa Fe on Hyde Park Rd. Try taking Bishops Lodge Rd. out through Tesuque to the Pacheco Canyon Rd. turnoff and then up into the mountains and on over to Hyde Park Rd. by way of Forest Road 102.
For more detailed views of any of these routes just check them out online at Google Maps.

Towering aspens off Hyde Park Rd. in the mountains above Santa Fe NM.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Conchas, Sumner and Santa Rosa Lakes Bounce Back in 2014

The dam at Conchas Lake on the eastern plains of New Mexico during the late summer of 2014.
Conchas, Sumner and Santa Rosa lakes are all full again thanks to abundant monsoon rains this summer and now is a great time to visit as the weather cools and the crowds fade.

“It’s just been terrific,” says Mary Sena of the Fisherman’s Hideaway at Sumner Lake out on the eastern plains. “The lake hasn’t looked this good in years.”

All three lakes have suffered from extremely low water levels in recent years due to the long running drought but things began to change late last summer when heavy rains fell for a couple of days.

Then this year it’s been one good summer rain after another out on the plains to help bring the popular but parched reservoirs back up to normal.

These three northeast area lakes all benefit greatly from rainstorm runoff collected over a vast watershed area while other reservoirs around the state still remain low because they are more dependent on ample mountain snows to refill.

“We haven’t seen great conditions like this since 2007,” said Steve Peterson, Conchas Lake Manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Steve Peterson, Conchas Lake Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Conchas Lake’s level is just a few feet short of its historical average and all boat ramps and campgrounds are open again and the fishing is reported to be just fine.

“That’s where I’d be,” Eric Frey, Sportfish Program Manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish said of Conchas Lake. “It’s really bounced back well and is just chock full of large and smallmouth bass.”

Smallmouth Bass like this one are thriving at Conchas Lake despite years of drought and low water levels.
Repairs have also been made to the dam to reduce leakage while the park’s historic Adobe Belle rental cottages are also being restored and might even be back in business by next season, Peterson said.

Those visiting Conchas Lake will find beer, ice and fishing supplies at the marina on the north side of the lake and while gas and groceries can be had from the 104 Store on the lake’s south side.

Just down the road at Santa Rosa Lake those familiar with its plight over the past few years during which the once mighty walleye fishery suffered heavily may be surprised to see how full it is again.

“We’ve planted walleye fry and hope to see it recover quickly,” Frey said.

The tower at Santa Rosa Lake in August 2014 after abundant summer monsoon rains.
The Santa Rosa tower in April 2013 after years of drought.
In the meantime anglers at the lake have reported the fishing for crappie, smallmouth bass, catfish and the occasional walleye has only been fair at the lake.

But those seeking quiet camping, a refreshing swim and fantastic scenery may find the lake a good option as others choose to pass it up for more active fishing spots.

The boat ramp at Santa Rosa in late summer 2014.
The Santa Rosa boat ramp in April 2013.
Supplies can be found in the nearby town of Santa Rosa which also boasts some of the best roadhouse restaurants in the state.

Santa Rosa Lake last in spring 2013.

Santa Rosa lake has bounced back and is full again in 2014 after good summer rains over the last two years.
At Sumner Lake the fishing has been good and getting better as the monsoon rains have slowed and the water is settling down, Sena said.

Due to heavy rains in this summer dam operators had been releasing the overflow downstream into the Pecos River which has helped keep it thriving too.

The peaceful lake between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner boasts a couple of nice shady campgrounds, open boat ramps and an attractive recreation area on the river just below the dam.

The Pecos River below the dam at Sumner Lake late summer 2014.
The big pool below the dam has a reputation for giving up the occasional lunker to some lucky angler smart enough to have fished it while visiting the lake.

Visitors will find cold beer, bait, tackle, ice and groceries at Sena’s longtime, lakefront business which also features a full bar and restaurant that looks out over the water.

Sumner Lake late summer 2014.
Visit the state park’s online website at for more information about each park and to make campground reservations.

This story was originally published in the Albuquerque Journal North and Las Vegas Optic newspapers and is reprinted here with permission.

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